Coraci: The Waterboy (1998)
The Waterboy marks the end of Adam Sandler’s golden period, taking elements from Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer and crafting them into a synthesis that is slightly less than the sum of its parts. Like Billy Madison, Sandler draws on his toddler persona, although Bobby Boucher, the waterboy who learns to take out his aggression through football, is even more regressive than Billy Madison. Like Billy Madison, too, Boucher is a fish out of water in the educational system, improbably embarking upon a science degree at South Central Louisiana State University, and learning the entire high school curriculum from his Mama, Helen, played by Kathy Bates, to make himself eligible for the South Central Mud Dogs. Yet The Waterboy draws just as heavily on the sports elements of Happy Gilmore, as well as the everyman persona of The Wedding Singer, which takes the edge off Boucher’s comic persona, and prevents Sandler ever quite reaching the anarchic antisociality of Billy Madison.
In that sense, Bobby Boucher is the most conflicted comic character in Sandler’s early work. On the one hand, he’s even more juvenile than Billy Madison, but, on the other hand, he’s so juvenile that he never seems capable of Billy’s polymorphous perversions either. Instead, Sandler mainly plays him for kitsch, elongating Billy’s drawl into a more overt speech impediment, and presenting Boucher as developmentally disabled rather than merely infantile. As a result, there’s only so far that Sandler can go with the cruel comedy, which he inverts quite ingeniously, presenting Boucher as the target of all the hectoring bullying that comprised the comic signature of his early films. If The Wedding Singer paired punching down with sentimental self-pity, at least in its second act, then The Waterboy goes one step further, depicting Sandler as the central victim of the very bullying that underpins his comic universe.
As a result, there’s no real need to establish that Bobby is a victim of bullying – being bullied is inherently a part of his persona, and inherently a part of Sandler’s persona from this point on, since The Waterboy marks the start of his silver age, which largely consisted of a maudlin victimology that only occasionally produced real comic brilliance. Since Sandler is effectively victimising himself here, he feels oddly displaced from the character of Boucher, who is easily the flimsiest of his personae up to this point – more attuned to a SNL skit than a feature-length film. At times he seems more like a cartoon character – he sounds remarkably like Eric Cartman – never quite matching the atmosphere of the film around him, meaning that Sandler has to double down on swamp rock here to build a convincing narrative world, filling his scenes with Top 40 rock classics as economically as The Wedding Singer’s 80s soundtrack.
In Sandler’s first three solo films, this nascent victimology was always particularly pronounced around women, who Sandler could only properly process as fantasies or maternal figures. Even today, the key Sandler statement on women is the dream sequence of Happy Gilmore, which juxtaposed Happy’s love interest pouring beer in lingerie, and his grandmother winning the lottery, with absolutely no middle ground. So drastically did Sandler need to divide women into mothers or fantasies that he tended to light more on grandmotherly figures, as if to double down on that maternal reassurance to make his fantasies seem genuinely viable.
In other words, there was a maternal melodrama lurking beneath the surface of Sandler’s first three solo films – and The Waterboy makes good on that melodrama in the most spectacular way, thanks to a powerhouse performance from Kathy Bates, who converges Sandler’s maternal and phantasmatic women in the shape of Mama Boucher. Bobby’s relationship with his Mama is the real emotional kernel of The Waterboy, which sometimes feels like a sickly Tennessee Williams drama when mother and son are left alone together. Not only does Helen prevent Bobby from seeing girls, and insists on being his best friend, but Frank Coraci intersperses the action with shots of Helen alone in their bayou home, evoking her as a presence that’s always lingering in the back of Bobby’s mind, a Southern Gothic potentiality.
This mother-son drama produces the oddest spatial scheme of any of Sandler’s films to date. Virtually all of the action is divided between the Mud Dogs’ football field, where Bobby goes from waterboy to star linebacker, and the bayou where Bobby and Helen live in a decaying desuetude of Southern charm. These two spaces seem to be operating in totally different worlds, especially because Bobby supposedly (and implausibly) travels between them on his home-made tractor. The only real continuity between them is water – the water that Bobby lovingly provides to his footballers, and the complex waterways of the bayou, both of which caress Bobby in an amniotic embrace that he struggles to overcome through his NFL career.
It makes sense, then, that Bobby has to traverse the bayou at the end to make it to the big game. Rather than take the tractor for this climactic match, we finally see the connective tissue between bayou and stadium, as Helen drives him on an eccentric home-made boat-car that takes them right from their jetty, at the dankest recess of the bayou, to the middle of the football field. Since this bayou-womb takes up so much of Bobby’s fantasy life, however, he’s never quite able to escape it, or to restore the fantasmatic women of Sandler’s earlier films. Instead of the token blonde dream girl, we have Fairuza Balk as Vicki Vallencourt, the only brunette in Sandler’s rotation of women – and easily the most Goth and indie in sensibility.
It’s fortunate that this mother-son stuff works so well, and that Bates gives such a bravura performance, since there’s not a lot of suspense when it comes to the football plot, whether in terms of Bobby’s relation to the other players on the team, or the progression towards the final game itself – the inaugural Bourbon Bowl. For all that the film initially presents the NFL as a bully culture, Bobby has no real problem channelling his rage into football, which makes this quite a conventional underdog sports film by the final act. Like The Wedding Singer, it’s also a socialising narrative, since Boucher has to learn to be aggressive in the right way – by translating his rage into the socially sanctioned space of football, which he does pretty well.
Since Bobby’s aggression is so contained (and so quickly contained), he’s not a hugely dynamic character, which is perhaps why The Waterboy finally feels more like a feel-good sports film than an edgy comedy. As a persona, Bobby is underdeveloped, on the cusp of being funny – he needs one more ingredient to be funny – partly because Sandler is a much more benign and docile man-child this time around, and his aggression has a more appropriate outlet. Yet this muted comic style seems to be the point, since Sandler is going for a kind of inspirational mildness, presenting Boucher as a rallying-point for “all of us who weren’t born handsome, charming and cool.” For all his bouts of rage, Boucher is as wholesome as the water he serves (something you certainly couldn’t say about Billy Madison), as the film digs deeper into the hokey, old-timey vibe we first glimpsed in The Wedding Singer, that crystallises in Mr. Deeds.
Even Boucher’s occasional bouts of aggression are entirely naturalised halfway through, thanks to a biology professor who explains that “anger, jealousy and aggression” aren’t character flaws – they’re just neurological variants, byproducts of “an enlarged medulla oblangata.” It may start by entirely pathologizing the NFL, but The Waterboy quickly turns into an apologia for the NFL – a painstaking explanation of why men like Bobby need an outlet for their anger. No surprise, then, that once Bobby gets into his groove, he’s not even a particularly eccentric character – more stylised and broad, to be sure, than Happy Gilmore or even Billy Madison, but closer in spirit to the sentimental naturalism of The Wedding Singer.
For all those reasons, and despite Bates, The Waterboy comes to a pretty milquetoast ending – a long football game. There’s a real art to shooting NFL in cinema – it’s so plosive and kinetic – and The Waterboy isn’t finally up to this task, or even especially interested in being up to this task. Despite a tongue-in-cheek ending, in which Mama tackles off Bobby’s father before telling him to “go and have fun being a man,” this third act seems to be fulfilling Sandler’s fantasy of becoming a pro footballer, much as his later films would often appear to reflect whatever product, experience or holiday he happened to want at the time. Call it a transition film, then, the nexus between Sandler’s golden and silver age, embodying the massive gulf in quality between those two eras, even if it just manages to hold it all together in this instance.
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